Isle of Dogs is Wes Anderson’s second foray into stop-motion animation and is perhaps his most emotionally charged film yet. Set in a dystopian Japan, the Kobayashi dynasty has taken power over Megasaki City to banish all dogs in the area to a rubbish tip as a result of a outbreak of disease. Despite scientists coming close to finding a cure, the dynasty sees dogs as vermin and led a re-election campaign to exterminate them. Meanwhile, Kobayashi’s distant nephew, Atari, searches for his guard dog Spots, where he is joined by four strays: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum) and Chief (Bryan Cranston).
The film follows up the logical extremes hinted at in previous effort the Grand Budapest Hotel. Both films address totalitarianism in different ways. Grand Budapest Hotel is a Euro-centric look into the loss of a historical hotel to fascists, while Isle of Dogs nods to the intense political zeitgeist comprising immigration and student activism. Here the scope is less ambitious, but the spirits are about as high, and the plot intricately developed. The voicework, in both humans and dogs, adds to the film’s universality, while speaking in Anderson’s typical wry and droll way.
While set in Japan, the film is self-aware. It’s West-centric and Anderson appears to understand the moral constraints of circling around different cultures as a Westerner. Naturally, accusations of cultural appropriation have already been thrown at the filmmaker. Buzzfeed film critic Alison Willmore states in a long essay about cinematic orientalism, that “it's not the idea of creating a fantasy Japan that's Anderson's problem — it's the underlying sense that he wouldn't be able to conceive of a real one.” Emily Yoshida at Vulture interviewed some Japanese Americans, who were mixed to positive on the treatment of the humans, but remarked that “there’s a kind of disconnect with the Japanese-ness, which made it feel like Japan was just a backdrop to tell this story.”
While these critiques are correct – Anderson’s Japanophilia is merely aesthetic – they fail to consider the current social and political climate in Japan right now. The most heated point of contention is Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), an American exchange student who serves as a reporter for a Japanese student newspaper and takes a huge interest in Atari’s plight. Tracey has been blanketly dismissed as a “white saviour” trope, only revealing how limited the framework of criticism is. Japanese immigration policy is possibly stricter than Australia’s and the US’s combined, a fact that directly correlates with its declining population. A renewed interest in nationalism, along with the corruption surrounding Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are among the highlights of the country’s elections last year. (Also worth noting: there are far-right movements in Japan with ties to the Yakuza, which is subtly nodded at in the form of one of Kobayashi’s crewmen). Under that context, Tracey would be the kind of person threatened by her host’s calls for ethnic cleansing and her resilience is certainly why she exists.
This isn’t the first time that Wes Anderson has encountered another culture as an outsider, one of his last efforts The Darjeeling Limited was about three brothers travelling across India after experiencing a series of life failures. If that film exhausts much of its time wallowing in its characters’ indulgences, Isle of Dogs is driven by natural sentimentality, allowing itself as much humanity. That’s not to say that Isle of Dogs is perfect. The sudden and somewhat forced relationship development between its characters, particularly with Chief and a beautiful show dog named Nutmeg (Scarlett Johansson), feels pointless and doesn’t spark any compelling chemistry, a common problem that occurs to varying degrees in Anderson’s filmography.
The language of Wes Anderson has become larger than the filmmaker himself; there’s a meta-feel to watching a film so wrapped up in his signature style. The film accommodates linguistic barriers by amusingly prefacing, ‘All barks have been rendered into English’ and that ‘the human speaks in their native tongues’. By design, Japanese lines are left unsubtitled or translated by human and electronic devices. That component is significant to why Isle of Dogs works so well. Its approach in tackling colonialism is not as complex as its critics wanted to be, but for Wes, it doesn’t need to.